words Lucy Stehlik
“To tell you the truth, fashion doesn’t interest me in the slightest,” says Bruno Basso of London fashion house Basso & Brooke.
Basso leans back into the sofa and sniffs theatrically, relishing the incongruity of his admission. Sitting cross-legged next to him on the sofa, Basso’s partner Chris Brooke looks like this is news to him.
It has to be said that they don’t look like they’re interested in fashion, dressed unassumingly in jeans and, respectively, a green T-shirt and a blue shirt (as you can tell from the slightly ludicrous summertime photoshoot).
But Basso, a graphic designer, is responsible for the most striking prints to have made it onto fabric in the last two years, and St Martins graduate Brooke, who transforms Basso’s artworks into clothes, has been compared to Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler and Vivienne Westwood for his ability to create theatrical but expertly-tailored pieces.
Basso and Brooke are winners of the 2004 Fashion Fringe competition (fashion critic Colin McDowell’s much-hyped initiative, dubbed “Fashion Idol”, which aims to keep talent in the UK with a £100,000 sponsorship deal), and already have a lucrative concession in Harrods and a dedicated international following (this season’s London Fashion Week collection, Vanity Affair, sold out with buyers in Japan, Korea, Russia, Iraq and – the holy grail – America, scrabbling for pieces).
Theirs is a cult luxury label: price tags on their outlandish dresses and jackets start at around the one thousand pound mark. Their Vanity Affair show referenced Valley of the Dolls materialism, Hollywood glamour and A-list excess, and their garments are designed with a bold and beautiful demographic in mind. But Basso & Brooke, both in their early thirties, live and work in a dilapidated terraced house in Brixton (shared with an indeterminate number of flatmates), are a bit scruffy and out of shape and aren’t into designer clothes. They look like they’d rather be sharing a packet of biscuits in front of Trisha (the daytime chat show is on when Brooke opens the door) than schmoozing at some flashy cocktail party.
When telling his life story (with a thick Brazilian accent), Basso portrays himself as something of a buccaneer-cum-gifted rebel, a precocious but defiant student who later grew bored of various lucrative jobs in advertising, club promoting and curating in his hometown of São Paulo, eventually dropping everything to study “synaesthesia and psychology” in London.
He fancies himself as something of an amateur social anthropologist. “I have always studied by myself,” he says. “Not in an institution. You know, like English people are descended from the Vikings. I observed that they eat chicken with their hands – this primitive habit. I made a proper anthropological study of how English society survived in the Regency years.”
So did he write it down and document it?
“No, it was all in the head.”
Soon after arriving in London, Basso met Brooke in a nightclub. They moved in together almost immediately and started working as Basso & Brooke soon after that. Basso had broken his leg and was spending hours on the computer perfecting the bawdy, lush designs that would soon become his trademark, while Brooke was styling pop stars for music videos (“Some credible artists; some not. Steps. Jamelia. Kylie. She was at her lowest point then. It was her worst-selling single”).
They started printing small individual items: teatowels, scarves, small stretched canvases, whatever they could afford, and taking them around to London boutiques.
“We were going in to little shops in Brick Lane and people loved the stuff,” says Brooke, rubbing his short blonde hair in vague disbelief. “But ours was a confusing message. We didn’t have enough stuff to show”.
Brooke, who is the less bombastic of the two, is interrupted by a grandiose arm gesture from Basso. “I never was keen to go step by step,” says Basso, flapping his hands, as if physically shooing Brooke’s words away. “I think you can start already at the top.”
Basso clearly has no time for Brooke’s British self-effacement: “We were going round these little shops and I was like, you know what? I don’t want to sell our stuff here. I want to sell in Harrods and Bond Street. We don’t need to struggle. Brick Lane, I mean!”He doesn’t actually say “puh-leaze!” but the implication is there.
Brooke makes a second attempt at contributing to the interview. “We’d been to a few PR companies. And you know, it was always the same story. Everybody loved it, but no one wanted to touch it.”
Basso & Brooke eventually came to Michael Salac at Blow PR, a London-based company, which deals exclusively with smaller unorthodox fashion brands. Salac was switched on to the modish appetite for eye-catching prints. Eley Kishimoto had just stormed London Fashion Week and the Pucci revival was in full swing. The print-hungry market was just about ready for Basso & Brooke’s bawdy, instantly recognisable designs. Salac became their benefactor, adapting and marketing their brand for minimal fees.
Soon they had a concession in luxury lingerie boutique Coco de Mer, but it was still prohibitively expensive to print their rich illustrations onto larger pieces.
It was then that Brooke saw an advertisement for Fashion Fringe in the paper. The prize included start-up fees, studio space and full sponsorship for the winner’s first London Fashion Week collection the following year. “I knew from day one we would win it,” declares Basso.
The highlight of their 2004 Fashion Fringe show, The Garden of Earthy Delights, was the head-to-toe use of loud, sexually-explicit prints; a welcome antidote to the tail-end of Ninetites minimalism. While other designers were giving a subtle nod to the print revival, they couldn’t have predicted Basso’s artistic prowess, or the novelty value of a ballgown printed with ejaculating penises and women in labour.
For their London Fashion Week debut in 2005, Basso & Brooke produced another extravagant show, The Succubus & Other Tales, appropriating and parodying dark fairytale iconography and classical mythology to create a mass of signifiers so crowded as to confound anyone who tried to read into it. Models became towering infernos, with flames licking the hemlines of their brick-print dresses, and wicked stepmothers were re-imagined as Ivana Trump Eurotrash, with huge peroxide up-dos, mock Versace chain print and miniature gold battleaxes dangling from their necks. The prints featured orgiastic seas of open-mouthed damsels in distress. These were ambiguous in that they resembled pornographic shots of women in ecstasy but could equally be women drowning.
For their third and latest collection, Vanity Affair, Basso & Brooke have taken an apparently bitchy shot at celebrity culture and its inherent vacuity.
How does a dress covered in poodles and stiletto-shaped buildings achieve this?
“Our work is all based in research”, says Basso. “For this show, I researched the whole of beauty.”
The whole of beauty?
Basso sighs in exasperation, flicking through a sheaf of beautiful sketches, hand drawn by their illustrator and muse, Alexis Panayiotou. Panayiotou, despite having worked for Basso & Brooke since 2004, rarely gets a mention in any of the duo’s press. But his talent for the pithy visual paraphrase becomes clear as Basso flips through dozens of exquisite pen and ink sketches, eventually stabbing his finger at an example from Vanity Affair.
“I looked at us as sexual animals and archetypes of beauty, from primitive times, and I started an analysis: beauty as it’s studied by psychiatrists and sociologists and biologists. Trying to put everything into context.”
Panayiotou’s elegant drawing of a high-heel- shaped cathedral, a kind of Babel’s Tower of vapid materialism, is like a bullet point to Basso’s meandering mental spidergram.
Basso gets caught up in lecture mode while Brooke sulkily examines his fingers. “We are in the age of makeup. People want to be younger, to be thinner. It reflects our society. People take these things on the surface, but once you look at scientific studies, people see that it’s all for a reason. There is a cynicism to the collection too, because it’s oversweet. Everything that’s too sweet leaves a bitter aftertaste.”
I ask them what the second step in their creative process is, after all this cross-discipline research. “I talk to Alexis about the theme,” says Basso. “With Vanity Affair it was about metamorphosis, so the shoes become landmarks. The poodles become celebrity. There are several theories. We got lemons, because as you drink … you change. You know, so it’s all pleasure, like a gift that a woman gives to herself. But the first of the ideas that we wanted to develop was the makeup.”
I ask what he means by that.
Brooke shoots Basso a warning look and tries to enlighten me. “It’s like a woman’s journey towards personal fulfillment. Kind of like a woman who was a bit suppressed, or had aspirations of doing something, but she had to break free from her routine. And if you look at the first and final outfits in the show, she blossoms into this. It’s almost like she’s given herself a bunch of flowers.”
Are they poking fun at or endorsing celebrity culture and its superficiality? Basso thinks both aspects are present. But Brooke comes clean. “We put so many references into it that we sometimes get a bit lost too. There are so many ways you can interpret it all.”